Handel's vast output is full of surprises. Just when you thought there were no new treasures to discover, along comes this first-ever recording of a virtually unknown Serenata from 1733. This work was written to celebrate the marriage of Princess Anne to William of Orange. Despite the silliness of the pastoral/allergorical text celebrating the joys of marriage and music, Handel's score is fairly bursting at the seams with extravagant invention and lavish orchestration (including some fabulous writing for hunting horns in Handel's most bracing al fresco style). Never mind that this work consists almost entirely of music recycled from *Athalia* and other sources. Handel knew exactly what he was doing in selecting (and often revising) suitable pre-existing music for this celebratory pastiche. The match of musical idiom and affect with text is in every case perfect, resulting in a work which seems freshly composed and in which everything contributes to a satisfying whole.
The performance featuring The King's Consort under the direction of Matthew Halls is splendid on every count. The cast, consisting mostly of women's voices, is sufficiently varied in timbre and character to prevent any sense of monotony setting in over a long succession of arias in a similar vocal range. Peter Harvey, the one male soloist, does a superb job in his limited role. Otherwise, the distinguished roster of women (with Sampson, Moore, and Clegg particularly outstanding) regale the listener with stunning feats of virtuosity in the celebratory music, alternating with poignantly expressive singing in the more reflective arias. The Choir of the King's Consort provide, crisp, clear-textured and often rousing contributions in the many splendid choruses which range in mood from compassionate lament (in response to Orpheus's recollected loss of Eurydice) to festive jubilation (as only Handel can evoke). They are particularly effective in the massive, and cunningly delayed climax of the final chorus, at which point the unexpected entrance of brass and timpani creates a spine-tingling surge of adrenaline.
Indeed, the ensemble playing is magnificent (with absolutely glorious winds and brass), and the continuo realizations are nicely varied, though never obtrusive. Add to this a virtually flawless recording in an ample, but never detail-clouding, acoustic space, and we have an unequivocal winner on our hands.
With informative notes and full texts and translations reflecting their usual strong production values, Hyperion has clearly given us one of the most stimulating Handel recordings in recent years. Not to be missed on any account.